We are more connected than ever, but does this extend beyond the digital arena? It seems that while we are willing to share the most intimate details of our lives online, we want to minimize our contact with others in the physical world. For example, text messaging is one means of avoiding conversations with others. (Know anyone who’s been dumped by a text message?) Are we moving toward a paradigm of public social avoidance with the rise of social media?
We actually take physical steps to reduce contact with each other. On my morning commute, the majority of riders have reduced opportunities for social contact through the use of iPods. I have blogged previously about how these devices can intrude upon one’s personal space in the public arena, but they serve a purpose: with earbuds firmly in place, the iPod user can “tune” out distractions—and each other:
The immense storage capacity of iPod and its imitators offers at least the opportunity for total, uninterrupted isolation from one's surroundings for long -- extremely long -- periods of time. It is now possible to commute, to stroll, to shop, even to go to a Knicks game, without having to listen to another human being, or even the same song. There is no rewinding or CD-changing to permit the outside world to leak inside the cocoon. With a jukebox in your pocket, a suitable tune is always at the ready, no matter your mood. And if you have little white ear buds rammed in your ears, there is always an excuse not to acknowledge fellow humans. ''I'm busy right now,'' iPod users seem to say. ''I'll get back to you in 10,000 songs.''
I admit to being a "reading commuter"—a good book occupies the time it takes for me to get to and from work. Or so I tell myself. In truth, being engrossed in a good story means that I have a polite out in the event any of my fellow commuters decide to strike up a conversation—I can keep it short and polite and pointedly go back to my book. And it also means that I can ignore some of the more “colorful” characters who may cross my commuting path. But why do I engage in this means of social avoidance? After all, I am a prolific Facebook user and I have posted my share of “I’m making dinner” statuses—and given the size of my network, I’ve likely shared this information with people who could care less. But in public, like my fellow commuters, I’m not particularly open to sharing non-personal details.
Social avoidance is not a particularly new phenomenon. It is most famously been linked to the Kitty Genovese murder that took place in the 1960s in Kew Gardens, NY. Kitty’s screams for help went unacknowledged—none of her neighbors phoned the police despite potential evidence that they heard her cries. Social psychologists have studied this case extensively and attribute the inaction of Kitty’s neighbors to two possible reasons: pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility. The former refers to the private rejection of a norm by a group that remains inactive because they believe that the majority support this norm. The latter refers to inaction due to the belief that someone else will act—responsibility is not explicitly assigned to any single individual. Both reasons are linked to social avoidance.
The link between iPod users, reading commuters, and Kitty's neighbor's lies in the extent to which our social ability to “see” is hampered by these tools and strategies. Public safety officers have long encouraged runners and others to be aware of their surroundings for their own personal safety. The idea being that while you may be grooving out to Queen, Blink 182, or Fall Out Boy during your morning run, you could miss the sound of footsteps coming up behind you, or if you’re holding your breath as you travel with Stephen King through the macabre, you could may find that your wallet or Metrocard has abandoned you at some point during the journey. But beyond personal safety, are we losing our ability to see others. Remember our discussion about the invisible homeless? If we lose our ability our see each other, how does that affect our ability to read social biofeedback? Does this compromise our theory of mind—our ability to mentalize, to attribute beliefs and attributes to others? Theory of mind is integral to social life—it allows us to navigate and manage our social relationships because it allows us to read social biofeedback to understand others. But social interaction is important to the development of theory of mind. If we willingly limit opportunities for social interaction, what are the implications? What are your thoughts on why we would seek to limit physical interactions in the first place?
Follow up: The NYT City Room blog posted reader responses to the issue of cell phone abusers.
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